In a recent unpublished decision, the United States District Court for the Southern District of Texas, Galveston Division, considered whether an injured worker was in fact a “seaman” for admiralty law purposes. The issue was contested by a defendant who asserted that it was entitled to a jury trial because the plaintiff sued strictly under state common and statutory law.
The injury occurred while the plaintiff and other crew members were aboard the vessel Hercules while the vessel rested within a protected boat slip, yet on navigable waters. The task at hand was using rigging designed and manufactured by the defendant. Tests of the rigging were being performed pursuant to job requirements set out for a project to lift and hold some 2,000 tons on-site in the Gulf of Mexico.
A third-party barge was requisitioned and ballasted with water in preparation for the simulated lift test. Two lifts were performed successfully before crew expressed concern that the barge had not been sufficiently ballasted. Engineers re-checked the calculations, confirmed they were correct, and proceeded with a third lift.
The barge was being held aloft during the third lift when certain rigging equipment failed, leading one side of the lift barge to drop back into the water. Debris was scattered, causing injury to the plaintiff’s hand and leg.
As the action was on the eve of trial in the plaintiff’s ensuing personal injury suit, the plaintiff settled with his employer. The defendant rigging manufacturer then demanded a jury trial. This raised the issue whether the plaintiff’s activity at the time of injury was so closely related to activity traditionally subject to admiralty jurisdiction that admiralty law should apply, with the result that no jury trial right would exist.
The court ruled that this was the case. The incident that gave rise to the plaintiff’s injury was not merely “fortuitously and incidentally connected” to admiralty in such a way that it bore no relationship to traditional maritime activity. Rather, the court said, the injuries alleged by the employee fell within the type that occurred in maritime settings. Specifically, the plaintiff’s employer was testing a rigging device constructed by the manufacturer for use in anticipated offshore lifts. That intended use was clearly known to the manufacturer, namely that its product was intended for offshore rather than land-based lifting. Thus the court found that the evidence supported the findings that the manufacturer’s tortious activity had a potentially disruptive impact on maritime commerce and was substantially related to traditional maritime activity.
The end result: the plaintiff was a “seaman,” the court had jurisdiction over all claims pursuant to the Jones Act and the General Maritime Law, and no jury trial was warranted.
The court went on to conclude that the plaintiff suffered some $1.9 million in damages due to his maritime personal injury during the failed rigging test.